If you’re like us, you believe that stories help fuel positive social change. Or maybe you go further: “Documentaries change the world.” “Arts and culture influence our core beliefs.” “Creative social media moves us to action.”

Active Voice Lab created How Do We Know (If We’re Making a Difference) to shine some light on the various ways that stories – in myriad formats – contribute to social movements. We’ve gathered some of the smartest, most intellectually generous, creatives, funders, evaluators and advocates. We’re exploring the range of measurement methods and opportunities for learning – as well as the consequences.

Why is an open conversation about “evaluation” important among creatives, funders, and advocates?

1) The stakes are higher than ever before, as most social change agents now recognize that character-rich media is a “must” for engaging people on an emotional and human level.
2) Money and time for producing and deploying this content are limited, and risk-taking isn’t always an option
3) Attention spans are shrinking at the same rate as content is expanding – and decisions about which stories to tell, to whom, and to what ends seem more complex than ever.

In other words, people want to know more precisely how creative media can advance social causes and campaigns, and what outcomes they can expect. And that’s where things get tricky.

How Do We Know offers:

We shouldn’t accept one popular construct that data or “big data” can tell us everything we need to know about a story’s contributions to a particular behavior or even policy. Instead, let’s think together about the (sometimes subtle) ways that media and culture help “move the needle.” Active Voice Lab’s Horticulture, a framework that uses garden tools as metaphors, can help allies articulate their visions for outcomes, from bringing together diverse stakeholders (Rakes), to heightening the vibrancy of social movements (Trellises), to advocating for specific policy or system change (Trowels), and more. Which kind of tool is your story? Or are you a Hybrid? Creative projects have multiple strengths, and few can be defined entirely by a single garden tool. Sometimes the core strength of the project itself is different from the way it is used; i.e., a Wheelbarrow could, with the proper strategy, be used as a Rake. Horticulture is a taxonomy, not a hierarchy.

Ask the Evaluators! is a new series that explores real-world assessment of recent media projects, offering practical advice to help you understand and make informed decisions about, for example, how different Horticulture tools can be most appropriately assessed. Some creatives want, or are required, to measure the impact of their own work. In other cases, social scientists are hired to examine the impact of social change media. To cut a path through all these options, we’ve asked HDWK/Learn— AV Lab’s working group of brilliant, plain-talking, media-friendly social scientists—some who specialize in media and some who focus on community/policy shifts—to help us out.  They are working to unpack the methods, rationales, and even the unknowns in assessing how stories contribute to change by matching assessment methods to our Horticulture framework. We’re excited to share this work in Ask the Evaluators! We think measurement can be a great way to learn, improve, adjust, and celebrate. But for some creative work, metrics are not possible or appropriate.

Evaluation, assessment, outcomes measurement…people in our ecosystem use a range of terms when they describe their efforts to learn how storytelling is helping to advance the causes that matter to them. And they have a growing number of approaches to consider: from “do it yourself” toolkits to sophisticated research firms. Explore our curated, working list of practical measurement resources developed by Active Voice Lab and other organizations. 

Let’s face it, talking about measurement, putting creativity under the microscope, can be awkward, even chilling, because power dynamics are at play. In our focus groups, we surfaced perspectives from some creatives who said it feels useless to develop projects that won’t have tangible outcomes, because they won’t get funded – and yet that reservation surprised some funders we’ve spoken with. Conversely, the funders we’ve interviewed have widely divergent views about what can, and even what should, be measured – an attitude that was a revelation to many of the creatives in our network. Read what we’ve heard so far, and sign up for our mailing list for updates.

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Let Active Voice Lab work with your team to help you unleash your own questions and attitudes, and the ideas that will help you learn if your stories are making a difference. What’s realistic, and how can you communicate expectations more effectively? What measurement methods might make sense for you? How can short-term metrics contribute to your long-term social justice goals? Who should be asking these questions in the first place, depending on what you really want to know? Contact us for details.

At the heart of all these methods is our ultimate passion: to work effectively toward a more just and equitable world. We hope you’ll join us in this exciting and critical work, lifting up the contributions of creatives in ways that more people can understand.